How to Talk to Strangers

Kelly Carmody
10 min readNov 18, 2020
Photo by Jessica Yap on Unsplash

Don’t talk to strangers. That’s what they tell us our whole lives. But, I’m going to be quite controversial here, and tell you that you that you SHOULD go ahead and talk to strangers. Should you use common sense and caution? Yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. From a young age, this whole idea is beaten into our heads that talking to strangers is dangerous, that we shouldn’t do it, that we should avoid it at all costs.

On the contrary, , research has shown that to talk to strangers significantly lightens our moods. In one study, people were randomly assigned to go into a Starbucks and strike up a conversation with the cashier, half spoke with the cashier, and half left without speaking. Those who left the Starbucks after speaking with the cashier actually left feeling quite a bit happier than those who didn’t speak with the cashier.

The Advantages of Talking to Strangers

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In addition to just making us happier and feeling nice, there are all the practical advantages that come with talking to strangers. Maybe we don’t usually frame it as “talking to strangers” because that sounds dangerous and scary, and that’s just what we tell our kids not to do, but that’s what it is, basically. Think about networking events, going up to somebody and asking them out, asking someone for directions, trying to talk to people at a meetup or a bar to make friends.

When you think about it, you’re really at a huge disadvantage if you can’t go up and talk to strangers. In your professional life, you’re going to have a difficult time networking and making professional contacts. In your romantic life, you’re going to have a tough time hitting on people and finding someone to date. In your social life, it’s going to be difficult to make new friends.

Just in general, if you’re really nervous about talking to new people, it might even be difficult to ask for directions or ask where the bathroom is or other harmless questions. Of course some or most of the difficulty may be due to social anxiety. But regardless, let’s talk about how to get better at talking to strangers.

Prepare Emotionally Before the Approach

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I’ll acknowledge that a lot of people, possible even the majority of people, feel uncomfortable talking to strangers, some even feel anxious about it. So the first step before approaching a stranger is to deal with your own inner emotional turmoil. Take a few deep breaths before you approach the person.

Work hard mentally to detach yourself from whatever the outcome might be. Realistically, the person might reject you, not want to talk to you, be rude to you, anything could happen. But I don’t say that to dissuade you from approaching strangers! Rather, just accept that fact, get over the fear, and use it as your fuel. The more you get rejected actually, the more you get used to it, and the less big of a deal it seems. You can even make a game of how many times you can get yourself rejected!

Want to Talk to A Stranger? Detach Yourself From the Outcome

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After you’ve dealt with all your own emotional baggage, and you’re in the zone, you’ve taken you’re breaths, you’ve flipped rejection on it’s head and you’re STOKED about getting rejected as much as you can, start reading social cues, to see if people want to be approached. This is going to be different depending on where you are.

In some situations it’s pretty much ok to approach anyone. These are situations where people typically go to socialize, like bars, networking events, and parties. At these events don’t worry about it too much, just go up to anyone and introduce yourself. Feel free to talk to strangers to your hearts content.

Sometimes at a networking event or club a group will be closed off and tight to indicate they’re not really interested in outsiders, or at a bar somebody might be sitting alone with their shoulders hunched over the bar and seem like they don’t want to be bothered, but in general, you have the green light.

Read The Situation Before Approaching

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Public places are a bit of a different game. Not everyone in a public place wants to be approached. On a bus, in line at the store, at the park. Be aware that people are just going about their lives and not everyone is going to be interested in speaking with you, it’s nothing personal or a reflection on you or how interesting or likeable you are as a person, people just have their own stuff going on, or aren’t interested in speaking to anybody.

Try reading people’s body language to see how open they are to interacting with others. If they seem really preoccupied or closed off, it’s probably better just to leave them alone. Also be aware of what is acceptable in your city and your country. In some areas people are constantly cheerfully talking to each other at the grocery store. In other areas people rarely intrude on each others space. If you come from a less talkative region, be even more aware of being respectful.

Some Cases for Caution

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This makes me think of a time I tried to talk to a random woman on the Tube in London about an advertisement for a TV show above us, and she just looked at me like I was a crazy person.

London is a generally reserved city when it comes to talking to strangers, and on the London Underground, people pretty much don’t talk to strangers ever, except sometimes when it’s late at night and everyone is very drunk. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go for it anyway though, if you happen to be in London! Try giving it a shot and seeing where it goes, just be respectful of people’s space.

Also, if you’re a large man, especially a large man, be wary of approaching lone women late at night, in areas without many people around. Even if you feel like chatting, or that you want a friend, it’s probably better not to do it. It can be really scary for women, who will usually pretend like they feel comfortable with you on the outside even if they are terrified that you might be a murderer on the inside, and are inching their hand toward the pepper spray in their coat pocket, just in case. Please think twice about doing it, and be considerate of others.

Talk to Strangers with this Approach

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Alright, now that we’ve gotten all of that stuff out of the way, what do you actually say? Realize first of all, that there is no perfect thing to say when you approach someone. There’s no magic bullet line that’s going to make things go smoothly, and make them love you. So much of any interaction is in how you say things, that’s so much more important than the exact phrasing you use, which everyone is going to forget anyway.

But they will remember the overall tone of the interaction, and how you make them feel. So don’t sweat the exact words. And make them feel good, aim to make every interaction with people feel like a pleasant encounter that they walk away from feeling good about, and you’ll be more welcome in any room.

Smiling, being friendly and approachable, and using a positive, enthusiastic tone all really help, whatever you land on saying. Approach people with confidence, and even if you don’t actually feel confident, fake it till you make it, act as confident as you can possibly muster, eventually some of it will drip through and you’ll get yourself to feel it on the inside to.

Try treating people like you already know them. Treat them like they are an old friend, who you’re being reunited with. If you can make yourself believe this, to some extent, it will actually seep forward into your interaction with them. It will cause you to treat them like an old friend on a subconscious level, and they will feel more at ease and welcomed in your presence, and like you all the more for it.

Ideas for Openers

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You can always just start with saying something really simple, like “Hi”, and introducing yourself. This works especially well in a setting like a networking event. Always consider the context of wherever you are, and whatever contextual cues there are to begin or consider the conversation.

If you want to start a conversation with somebody in line at a coffee shop, you can talk about how delicious those pastries in the window look. If you want to start a conversation with someone at a park, you can talk about how cool those park benches look. Want to start a conversation at a bar? Mention something on the TV.

The environment provides great kindling for our conversation starters with strangers. If you get really desperate and can’t think of anything else to say, of course you can always talk about the weather. It can be a bit boring, but it’s not always so bad as a way to get the ball rolling if you can’t think of anything else, the weather is a shared experience that we all share in common after all.

Even better, spice up your weather talk by talking about how you feel about the weather, and some opinions about it. “I love cold days like this, they’re the best sort of day, you can just curl up inside with a nice cozy book.” That makes things slightly more exciting (woo hoo)!

Start Speaking to a Stranger with a Compliment

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Compliments always work really well. Everybody loves compliments — except for this one guy, who when my friend told him he had a nice sweater one night, replied “I know it’s a nice sweater, I don’t need you to tell me that it’s a nice sweater, I already know that” and got kind of angry. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen that happen though, 99.9% of the time you’re in the clear and will be well received as long as you’re genuine and not creepy.

Seriously though, compliments work great, go up to somebody, and tell them that you love their sunglasses, watch, band T-Shirt, whatever it is. Complimenting accessories is especially safe; try to stay away from physical appearance and things people can’t control.

Something else that works really well with people is humor, making some jokes. If you can make somebody laugh, than that’s bonus points with them right away. People will like you if you can make them laugh. Tying into the earlier point about environmental cues, you can even make a joke about something in the environment. “That tree looks kind of like a young Abraham Lincoln without the beard, don’t you think?”. You’re probably more funny and clever than me though, and you could think of something even funnier than that.

Some Topics to Talk About

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Once you’re talking, and you’re in, keep it appropriate. Try to stick away from very heavy politics like politics, death, and religion. The definition of what is appropriate is fluid however, and I’m actually a big fan of pushing the conversation a bit beyond what is considered conventionally appropriate with strangers. Not too far though, or you’re going to scare people off and come off as aggressive. It’s a fine line to walk.

If you want to try pushing things just a bit further than normal, but not being too obnoxious or off-putting, try probing with questions a bit deeper than somebody would normally ask, follow up questions, to get to know the person better. If you’re talking to somebody at a park, and you want to push things a bit, you could ask somebody what their hopes and dreams are for their life. Be aware that they may look surprised and caught off guard. On the other hand, some people might take it very well, and a budding new friendship could come out of the encounter.

Conclusion

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Talking to strangers is more of an art than a science. There is no exact formula, no perfect thing to say, no 100% correct approach. It’s scary for a lot of people, but the potential rewards are immense. Friends, lovers, powerful new professional contacts (directions to the bathroom at the mall).

Mindset is half of it, learning how to cope with rejection, and how to calm your own emotions. Then knowing when it’s acceptable to approach people(which it is the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of the time, people are happy to talk to others, and I WOULD advice you to approach them).

Once you’ve gotten up the courage for the approach, then you’ve got to figure out what to say. Of course, you shouldn’t sweat it too much, because your exact words aren’t that important ultimately, it’s more the delivery that counts.

Smiling, being friendly and positive all count for a lot. The environment, and observations about it always provide great cues for things to say. Jokes and compliments work great, people LOVE jokes and compliments, they make them laugh, and feel good about themselves. Besides that it’s pretty simple really. So, despite what your Mother taught you, you definitely SHOULD talk to strangers. You’re gonna do great, kid.

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